Double fences, barbed wire, cameras and violent pushbacks: crossing the northern border of Serbia is one of the most difficult stages for migrants on the Balkan route. Stuck at the foot of this Hungarian wall, they then have no choice but to turn to the smugglers. In the region, their control is exercised everywhere, in the informal camps as well as inside the official centres.
Marlène Panara, special correspondent in northern Serbia.
Hashem drags his feet outside the main entrance to the Sombor migrant center. Wrapped up in a long black down jacket, a hood on his head that barely reveals his eyes, he kills time with one of his Syrian compatriots. Like every day since his arrival here a year ago, in the fall of 2021. Every year since 2016, this city in northwestern Serbia has seen thousands of migrants who wish to reach the European Union via the Hungarian border, about twenty kilometers away. Hashem tried. Dozens of times. But so far, it has been impossible for the young man to cross the double barbed wire fence that separates Hungary from Serbia.
Since 2017, it has extended along the border between the two countries, over 160 km. Between the two barriers, Hungarian border guard vehicles patrol regularly, on the lookout for the slightest movement. To assist them, thermal cameras, connected to control screens, adorn the fences. In the event of intrusion, the chances of continuing on to Hungarian territory are rare. Because repressions are legion.
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According to the Asylum Seekers Protection Center (APC), an NGO present in several migrant reception centers in the country, between 600 and 1,000 people have been violently turned back every day by the Hungarian authorities since last spring.
“More smugglers than migrants”
Only one solution remains for the migrants trapped behind the Hungarian wall: to turn to the smugglers. “Since last year, it has been impossible to cross the border alone. It has become much too complicated, so no one crosses without paying. Here, the smugglers control everything,” says Betty Wang, from the NGO Collective Aid. . According to the activist, in the official centers as in the informal camps “a lot of ‘little hands’ operate”: migrants who do not have the money necessary for the crossing, and who, by participating in this traffic, pay for a future passage.
In the center of Sombor, where nearly 800 exiles currently survive for a capacity of 120 places, “there are often more smugglers than migrants”, confirms Waël*, who arrived a month earlier. The frail young Syrian man of 22, who left his country after his baccalaureate for Turkey, is one of them. His mission ? Accompany the exiles along the Hungarian border, and find a discreet and less guarded passage. And this, using a GPS and indications issued by a third party.
“My passage from Turkey to Bulgaria cost me dearly. Since my arrival here, I have no more money. I even owe a certain amount to people who helped me to cross, confides- he in front of a small shop outside the centre. Smuggling people into Hungary isn’t very lucrative, because you have to share the money between all the smugglers. But it will allow me, one day, to continue my road”.
Once Waël has repaid his debts and accumulated enough savings to leave Serbia, he wants to go to Austria, where his brother lives.
“I think we’re not doing anything wrong, he defends himself. We, at our level, are just helping people to cross to the other side of the border.” Other links in the chain can also provide ladders – without which it is now very difficult to climb the fence – and organize taxi transfers from reception centers to border areas.
In front of the center of Sombor, moreover, an uninterrupted ballet of taxis is visible, even in broad daylight. The road is much too narrow to accommodate all those who crowd in front of the main entrance. A long line of cars forms at the edge of a small wood. They only wait a few seconds before a small group of exiles rushes inside. The same scene is visible in front of the center for migrants in Subotica, further east.
Twenty-five euros for a tent
To escape the control of smugglers in overcrowded centres, a majority of exiles choose to settle far from these towns, in informal camps along the Hungarian border. But there too, the difficulty of the passage, and the disastrous living conditions push the migrants to offer the services of smugglers. In one of these places to live in Horgos, a village very close to Hungary, “you have to pay 25 euros to sleep in a tent”, says Ahmed, a 23-year-old Algerian. He can’t afford it. “I sleep there every night,” he says, pointing to a small wasteland near the camp.
In nearby Srpski Krstur, the control exercised by the traffickers is even stronger. For a year, it has been impossible for the inhabitants of the village to set foot on the small beach of the lake, below the houses. A migrant camp has formed there. The place, where nearly 200 people live in the most total destitution, is constantly guarded by lookouts.
Another person is responsible for monitoring the comings and goings from the city center, and yet another those of the migrants who have gone to buy some food at the village grocery store, a ten-minute walk from the lake. Finally, yet another “guard” watches the surroundings not far from the camp, from a field in the village. “He stays posted there all day,” says Beka, a forest ranger, staring from his terrace at a dark figure that appears in the distance.
For Beka, the round of these men is the direct consequence of the appearance of the border fence. “This barrier is a disaster. So yes, it has stopped the small local smugglers in the region, who were taking advantage of migrants. But by blocking people here, forcing them to stay, it has exploded the number of the most big traffickers”, he plagues.
“The more walls we build, the more smugglers there are”
On October 5, the police evicted the 200 people living in the camp. A video of the operation, broadcast on the website of the Ministry of the Interior, shows the police at work: the migrants, hands behind their necks, are expelled one behind the other. Agents in military uniform search the tents and empty them of the belongings of the exiles. “A TV show”, for Beka, who ensures that this kind of operation takes place here “every month”. “And people come back,” he breathes, taking a sip of apricot-flavored rakija, the local alcohol.
For several months, the Serbian government has been communicating cheerfully, with small sentences, on the fight against “criminals and scum who traffic in human beings and earn money thanks to their pain and their sufferings” , words of Interior Minister Aleksandar Vulin. Visiting Greece on October 9, the latter once again castigated “criminal gangs, which since 2015 have made enormous profits from human tragedy, trafficking in people, arms and drugs”.
A refrain that looks like a “desperate struggle”, says Rados Djurovic, director of APC. “As long as there is this fence to prevent people from crossing, there will be traffickers. So this policy of hardening the border, at all costs, is completely counterproductive. The more walls you build, the more there are smugglers.”
On July 9, Hungarian President Viktor Orbán signed a decree creating special border guard units, which could number up to 4,000 people. A few days later, a decree published in the Hungarian Official Journal announced the raising of the double fence by an additional meter.
*Name has been changed